French Open Preview and Predictions
One year I was writing a French Open preview and interviewing a
tennis legend for his thoughts on the eventual outcome. "No, he's not
patient enough," went the verdict on one. "It's hard to see him winning
seven matches." "He's pretty stupid, don't you think?" "I don't think he's
ready." As this continued, I wanted to throw up my hands and scream, "hey,
somebody's got to win it."
That principle applies with a vengeance to this year's French Open. Between
injuries, erratic play, parity, depth and the invariable narrative lacuna
that seems to strike tennis every spring (I mean, doesn't it seem like they
played the Australian a long, long time ago?), Roland Garros '97 is a tough
call for both men and women. Injuries have forced Andre Agassi, Boris
Becker, Thomas Enqvist, Todd Martin and Mal Washington out of this year's
tournament. Sampras, Graf and Hingis are among the top players who've been
injured this year but will be in Paris.
The Men: Overview
All right, so is this the year for Pete? No. But won't failing to win the
French make him an incomplete champion? No.
My feeling about Sampras is that while he'd love to win the French, he's not
going to lose any sleep if he doesn't. He's built his game -- from body and
strokes to match strategy and playing schedule -- around taking the big
hardware at Wimbledon and the Open. Those two Australian crowns have been
nice by-products. The flow of the tennis year makes it not too worth his
while to put excessive energy into Paris. He's tried every match play
scenario -- enter a bunch of clay tournaments, play only a couple, work on
his baseline game, come up more. But one thing he hasn't done is spend
considerable weeks actually practicing on red clay with European grinders
like Alex Corretja or Thomas Muster.
The deal for Sampras is this: He'll come to the French, take his chances,
hit a lot of balls, grub out some matches and if the draw opens up, great.
If he doesn't have to work too hard the first week, maybe he has a shot to
sneak out the title. My thinking is that he'll hit the invariable
quarter-semi wall, toss his orange-soaked shoes into the Seine Rivers and
then blissfully head to England for his beloved grass.
Here are the other leading contenders:
Thomas Muster can never be counted out on clay. Forget the fact that he's
failed to defend his titles in Monte Carlo and Rome. Forget how early he's
lost on clay this spring. He is to clay what Becker is to grass: A perennial
contender by sheer dint of tenacity and comfort on the surface. Would you
want to tell him anything else?
Another lefty, Marcelo Rios, has begun fulfilling his promise by winning at
Monte Carlo and reaching the Italian Open finals. This year's French is a
put up or shut up tournament for this fluid, prickly Chilean. He needs to
reach at least the semis if he's to continue advancing his career. But he
certainly has the talent and game to do it -- a wonderful claycourt blend of
Connors on the backhand and McEnroe on the forehand. Hopefully, he'll keep
his head together.
Alex Corretja, known to all as the vanquished quarterfinalist of last year's
fifth-set tiebreak at the Open versus Sampras, is starting to assert himself
in a big way. He's one of the many Spaniards who are becoming major factors
in tennis. His win over Rios in the Italian Open final showed he can go the
distance. He's powerful on both sides, can run well and has an impressive
Other potential threats include Michael Chang, who's in the hunt at every
event but hasn't had quite the staying power in Paris since winning it in
'89; '96 champ Yevgeny Kafelnikov, who is just recovering from an injury and
claims "it will take a miracle" for him to successfully defend his title;
Richard Krajicek, a guy who can beat or lose to anyone on any given day, but
a threat on any surface; Andrei Medvedev, a former top tenner who has
recently resurrected his game and played great tennis in winning the German
Open; Goran Ivanisevic, an underrrated claycourt player but a mental midget;
fluid Carlos Moya, another Spaniard who knocked off Becker on his way to the
Australian finals; and Sergei Brugera, the Spanish dude who would like to
remind his compatriots that he deserves to be at the head of the class since
he won this event twice.
The Men: Draw At A Glance
Here's how the draw would shake out if all 16 seeds reached their appointed
1. Pete Sampras
15. Marc Rosset
8. Carlos Moya
9. Alex Corretja
3. Yevgeny Kafelnikov
14. Tim Henman
12. Alberto Berasategui
5. Thomas Muster
11. Alberto Costa
13. Wayne Ferreira
4. Goran Ivanisevic
7. Marcelo Rios
10. Felix Mantilla
16. Sergei Brugera
2. Michael Chang
Of course by the round of 16 the draw will be filled with so-called upsets.
Everyone knows that the French Open is a landmine -- no, make that more of a
quagmire -- teeming with topspinning spoilers who by the time the last ball
is struck look much more like favorites than many a seed.
Sampras, for example, has a potentially tough first-round match with
claycourt expert Fabrice Santoro. Pete should get through that, though, and
then have another tricky day with Spain's Francisco Clavet, a deceptively
creative lefty. From there, Sampras' draw looks clear to the quarters.
It's bad luck for Spain, though, as Moya and Corretja are on a path towards
a round of 16 battle. Along the way, Moya could run up against grinders
Fernando Meligeni or Javier Frana. Corretja has an interesting first-round
match with talented Karim Alami, a Morrocan with a claycourt win over Chang.
I'm thinking Corretja will take out Moya with his big serve (he aced Sampras
25 times at the Open), powerful forehand and nicely-fit game. Alex will also
avenge his loss to Sampras and make it to the semis.
The next quarter of the draw is extremely soft. I'll be amazed if
Kafelnikov and Henman actually make it to the round of 16. Henman could play
Aussie power mogul Mark Philippoussis in the second round -- a match where
I'd give the edge to Philippoussis. Oddly enough, for all his big serving,
clay is an asset for Mark, as the slow surface makes it easier for him to
cover the court and strike his heavily-topspun groundstrokes.
There's more bad luck for Spain when Berasategui faces off against Medvedev
in the first round. I'll pick Medvedev to knock him off and advance to a
round of 16 match with Muster that will be one of the tournament's best
As we head down the other half of the draw, I foresee smooth movement for
Alberto Costa, the dangerous, but not quite ready for prime time Spaniard.
This guy's been hovering around the late stages of tournaments for a couple
of years, but still has yet to reach a semi. He'll make his way to the
quarters, and if Goran can hold his head together, the two will lock up in a
wonderful stylistic contrast. Of course that's a big if. Goran's first
match is versus tough Swede Magnus Gustafasson. Lurking in his path to the
quarters are such spoilers as big-serving Daniel Vacek, grinder Chris
Woodruff (the guy who knocked off Agassi at last year's French), the Laverian
Petr Korda and underachieving Wayne Ferreira. This whole section is filled
The bottom quarter is filled with quality players. Rios should march nimbly
to the round of 16. He's scheduled to meet Mantilla, but Mantilla's second
round match is versus the winner of the intriguing first-round encounter
between Jim Courier and Magnus Larsson. The Courier-Larsson match is vivid
proof of Boris Becker's statement that "tennis years are measured like dog
years." Just six years ago, Courier played Larsson in the third round of the
French. Down two sets to one, the American won the fourth, 7-5, and the
fifth, 6-2. "That's the kind of win that can take a guy to a title," Jimmy
Connors said that day in the NBC booth. Indeed, Courier went on to take the
French in '91 and '92. Larsson has become a classic spoiler in the tradition
of Johan Kriek or Henri Leconte -- good enough to slash his way through
anyone, but lacking the mental and physical staying power to win tournaments.
And Courier, now unseeded, has thoroughly lost his Lendlesque aura. The
match with Larsson is a 50-50 bet. I'll take Courier, who'll then be
vanquished by Mantilla.
Much like Courier, Sergei Bruguera has lost his champion's luster. But he's
shown signs this year of resurfacing, as evidenced by beating Chang and
Sampras to reach the Lipton finals. I like his chances of advancing far in
Paris, including a win over Chang. As for Michael, he seems a bit out of
sorts this spring. Though he performed with typical grit in winning Indian
Wells, Memphis, Hong Kong and Orlando (the latter on clay), save for his run
to the finals at the French in '95 (where Muster manhandled him), it's never
quite seemed that he's fully comfortable on the red stuff. So much of his
resources have been devoted to adding strength and power that Chang seems
increasingly incapable of playing the patient game that earned him the title
in '89. Moreover, today's players hit the ball with much topspin and pace
than they did then.
Here's who I see reaching the semis:
In the all-lefty finals, Muster will have too much experience, consistency
and moxie for Rios. The Chilean won't feel relaxed enough to experiment, and
instead find himself in one long rally after another.
- Corretja vs. Muster in a great match, filled with fire, brimstone and
dozens of topspinning rallies that will leave us viewers feeling that these
guys are playing another sport.
- Costa vs. Rios, a match that will have its share of great shots from Rios,
as well as indifferent, dreary claycourt play from each. Rios will reach his
first Grand Slam final.
The Women: Leading Contenders
On many a Sunday afternoon in the early '70s, a large American car would
pull up to a public court where I played in Los Angeles. The door would open
and out would gingerly surface 84-year-old May Sutton Bundy, winner of
Wimbledon in 1905. Bundy would take the court for a few minutes, whack a few
forehands in a relatively spritely manner, get back in the car and zoom home.
Steffi Graf is 56 years ahead of that schedule.
For several years now, Graf has been a physical and emotional wreck. Back,
knees, wrist and family have all given her aching pain. But she continues
getting out of the car and delivering the goods.
And even now, with Martina Hingis on top of the computer rankings, Steffi is
unquestionably the reigning queen of women's tennis. She is like the British
Empire in its final stages -- rickety, barely holding it together, fragile in
the corners, but a grand sight nonetheless.
More importantly, she's endured and prevailed where others have failed to
Hingis, of course, is the "It Girl" of tennis in 1997 -- and as I wrote last
month, for good reason. Her injury and month-long exile haven't helped her
in the short-term (in the long term it might help diffuse any pressure she
might feel about taking Steffi's crown).
Monica Seles? Oh, Monica, you have been more damaged than Steffi. From
knives and lawsuits to a father on death's door, you have been distracted
from the mission. You have grown as a person, faced the emotional demons and
in the process have lost that split-second attack which made you a tiger.
Spunky Arantxa Sanchez Vicario is another player who has lost her focus.
The good news, we hear, is that she's also learned there's more to life than
tennis. But a counterpunching game like hers requires supreme dedication and
The two other big contenders are Mary Pierce and Conchita Martinez. Pierce
has started playing sharp tennis this spring, most notably when she blitzed
Martinez to win the Italian. Martinez is a very good claycourt player who
rarely suffers bad losses but seems like she can hardly be bothered to score
the big win.
Looming close, but not likely to win, are Amanda Coetzer, who handed Graf
the worst loss of her career ten days ago; Lindsay Davenport and Jana
Novotna, both top tenners but players I refuse to take seriously on clay; and
talented racket wielders Iva Majoli and Irina Spirlea.
The Women: Draw At A Glance
Here's how it would pan out for the woman:
1. Martina Hingis
16. Barbara Paulus
14. Brenda Schultz-McCarthy
6. Arantxa Sanchez Vicario
3. Monica Seles
10. Mary Pierce
12. Mary Joe Fernandez
8. Anke Huber
5. Lindsay Davenport
9. Iva Majoli
15. Karina Habsudova
4. Jana Novotna
7. Conchita Martinez
11. Amanda Coetzer
13. Irina Spirlea
2. Steffi Graf
Moving through the draw, we'll likely see a third round match between Hingis
and Russian phenom Anna Kournikova. Three years ago I saw Hingis
double-bagel Kournikova in the U.S. Open juniors. They're both better
players, but Kournikova is still in the R&D mode -- that is, she's still
rounding out her game. Hingis will stomp her, but that's no ding on
Kournikova, who within three years will be a top ten player. Even if she
drops a set to someone, Hingis should breeze to the quarters.
In the next section, there's an intriguing first-round matchup between
Meilen Tu (who beat Hingis in the finals of that same year's U.S. Open junior
title) and the fluctuating Natasha Zvereva. Even though Zvereva is no longer
an elite singles player, it would be a good win for Tu. But Zvereva will win
this one. Sanchez Vicario will emerge the victor of this part of the draw,
and in the quarters will encounter Hingis.
That quarter figures to be a prime test for both players: Can Arantxa still
deliver the goods on her favorite surface? Is Hingis fully recovered from
her injury and ready to further dominate? If Arantxa is playing
exceptionally sharp tennis early in the tournament (that is, dusting her
opponents), she might be able to take this match. But if she's only playing
so-so tennis, Hingis will win.
Even more intriguing is the possibility of a third-round match between Seles
and Venus Williams. Williams is making her Grand Slam debut, and to reach
Seles she'll need to beat the deceptively tough Naoko Sawamatsu and the
winner of a match between tour veterans Nathalie Tauziat and Rene Simpson.
Beating Sawamatsu and Tauziat is a tall order for Williams. Venus claims
not to be intimidated by anyone, and her father asserts that she'll go down
as one of tennis' greatest champions. But she won't begun her run in 1997.
The red clay won't be friendly for this ball-slapping, athletic player. My
hat's off to Venus if she reaches that third round. She won't.
Seles is then slated for a round of 16 match with Mary Pierce. This could
be a barn-burner, with both players hitting the tar out of the ball. But
it's also a match between two power players who have unfortunately been
forced to spend more time tending to their fragile psyches (and family
matters) than tennis. Seles will whip Pierce, and then tromp through to the
semis, as the adjacent section of the draw features yet another pair of
underachievers in Mary Joe Fernandez and Anke Huber. Now the good news for
Fernandez fans is that she recently beat Pierce to win the German Open --
only the seventh title of a career that began in the Evert era. But Mary
Joe's also slated to meet clever Miriam Oremans in the third round, a player
who whipped her in the Fed Cup this past winter.
As for Huber, she will be upset by gritty American Kimberly Po in the first
round. Po's become a tennis lover's cult story this year, resurrecting her
mid-grade career and cracking the top 20. She could well reach the quarters.
On the other half of the draw, Davenport's round of 16 match with Majoli
will rival Seles-Pierce on the power meter. I'd love to see the spirited
Majoli start breaking through at big events, and I think she'll make progress
at this year's French. She'll beat Davenport and then have just the matchup
she wants when she takes on athletic netrusher Jana Novotna in the quarters.
Though obviously more comfortable on faster surfaces, Novotna isn't that bad
on clay at all. Last year in Paris, she knocked off Seles. This year,
she'll still have just enough claycourt smarts to keep Majoli at bay with a
mix of slice backhands and nimble sorties at the net.
I'm fascinated by the possibility of a round of 16 match between Martinez
and Coetzer. Coetzer is somewhat of a "B"-level Arantxa -- a small,
ball-chasing counterpuncher who's hard to take out of a match. But while a
flatter-hitting Majoli, Pierce or Fernandez could be primer fodder for
Coetzer, the high-bouncing, enervating topspin of Martinez is too tough for
her. Conchita will play good stuff to beat Coetzer.
Graf will enjoy the sharpness that comes from playing Spirlea. In many
ways, Spirlea reminds me of Graf: a sound stroker, good athlete, solid ball
striker. She'll make Steffi work, but just enough to get her in shape for
yet another couple of showdowns with Martinez and Novotna -- players who
succumb both mentally and physically to Graf.
The good news for Graf is that players who can really bug her at this year's
French -- the pesky Arantxa, the powerful Pierce, the tenacious Seles, the
ascending Hingis -- are all in the other half of the draw. They will suck
the life out of each other while Steffi hits big forehands at Roland Garros
and spends her off-days visiting medical specialists all over Paris.
Here's how I see the semis shaking:
Final: Hingis vs. Graf. Worn out by her matches with Sanchez and Seles,
somewhat out of shape from her layoff, tired by the white lights of fame,
Hingis isn't ready yet to take Steffi's crown. The draw and the circumstances
will enable Steffi to once again turn in a command performance. Somehow,
this champ is like a perennial undergraduate: She'll come into the exam room
and forget all that's gone on with family and body. For two hours, she'll
concentrate and run as only she can, working each point with her rapier
forehand and low-bouncing slice backhand. The future belongs to Hingis, but
for now the '97 French Open is yet another testimony to Steffi Graf's ability
to repress and impress.
- Hingis vs. Seles in the war of the worlds. Seles took her to a third-set
tiebreak at Hilton Head. Monica will give everything she has, and make it
very difficult for Martina. Hingis will be worn out from her quarter with
Sanchez and may also have trouble generating pace on the slow clay. It's a
tough match to call. If it's hot and fast, Hingis will be able to do more
with the ball. But if it's slower, both players' fitness comes into play.
It would be great if Seles was to add more tactical wrinkles to her game --
such as coming to net more. But I think Monica is in too much of a
bunker-like mood to innovate. She wants to hunker down with her loved wins
and do it on sheer guts. She's got more of this than anyone, but that's not
enough. Hingis in three.
- Graf vs Novotna. As with Spirlea, Steffi will like these brisk, athletic
rallies. The clay won't be friendly to Novotna's netrushing game. Steffi
will enjoy the short points, and will take this in two.
Graf in two.
Between The Lines Archives:
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This column is copyrighted by Joel Drucker, all rights reserved.
Joel's background includes 25 years as a
player, instructor, tournament director and writer. His
stories have appeared in all of the leading tennis
magazines (Tennis, World Tennis, Tennis Week, Tennis Match, and
Racquet). He has also written about tennis for many general
interest publications, including Cigar Aficionado,
Diversion, Men's Journal, San Francisco Focus and the San